The man strode along the stone fencing of the pasture, checking for gaps, for tumbled rocks, for anything else at all out of place. He expected little of that sort, and had indeed found nothing so far. Still, it was a good thing to do in that chilly time between the haying and the lambing. He smiled to himself under his green scarf. It was also a good thing to do when a wife and little daughter meant to surprise him with a Christmas tree newly sprung up from the floorboards of their sitting room. The ladies would need some time yet.
A black-and-white dog jogged with him, checking for problems in her own way. Every few paces she would hop onto the wall, check about for strayed sheep who needed to be grouped with their flock, and then resume her patrolling for moles, weasels, and invading dogs. She, too, could do this all day if need be, and often had, with or without her preferred human.
A turn, and the wind blew in their faces. The dog lifted her head, enjoying the scents of her home in this half-wild and rocky place. The man pulled his scarf a little higher to protect his too-large nose and tugged his cap a little lower to keep it from blowing off. This stretch of stone wall was a bit higher, and funneled the wind from the wildest parts of the countryside. It usually brought no sound but itself, or perhaps the occasional bleat or bark carried from distant places.
Today a different sound carried from afar. The man stopped and listened carefully. The dog lifted her nose higher, then placed herself before her master and growled, hackles rising. No child’s voice should be heard on that wind, crying.
The sound became more distinct as they stood, the man feeling the blood sink from his chapped cheeks. There could be no infant in the fields, certainly not approaching as it seemed. And he knew that cry, the cry of a child neglected and left as a test. Had he been broken enough? Would he do as he was told, regardless of the command, rather than face his tormenters again? The child cried the question in its infant wails, closer, and closer still.
“I’m sorry,” the man whispered into the cutting wind. “I had no choice. If I had not, someone else would have done it, and they would have tried again, over and over, to train me to do as I was told. And—you were never old enough to understand. Now, perhaps, you would be. Some things a man cannot face.”
Now, the child would be older than he had been on that awful Christmas Eve. The wail whirled around him, his dog flattening at his feet with a snarl. Could such a spirit understand? Could such a spirit forgive? Or could it only haunt him once a year, in that season supposed to be jolly, and pass on?
“I’m sorry,” he said again, and the crying cut off, as it always did. As it had when he had stopped it. Whatever the presence was, it had gone. He would have believed it a moment’s imagination, if the dog had not still shivered and growled against his legs.
He sat on a tilted boulder, one too big for the wall-builders of centuries ago to have used, out of the wind for the moment. The sheepdog crowded his steps and pressed against him. Sitting, he rubbed at her ears until she decided the world was right again. He wished for the soul of a dog, one that could adapt and forget. She took a few steps away, back to their path along the wall, and offered him an invitation with the set of her head—did he wish to hunt moles with her again? Might there be sheep for her to work? It was time to be moving.
It was, indeed, time to be moving. The sun was setting behind the massing clouds; he thought the smell of snow was growing sharper. He had once been broken, but now—now there was a wall to check, and sheep to tend, and a wife to embrace. There was a daughter to love. One wrong, years ago, could not be undone, but it could, perhaps, be allowed its small haunting once a year. It could have its apology.
He turned his steps along the wall once more, briskly, to finish the path. A bright warm home with fairy lights and pine scents awaited him.